The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Debate on the Proposed Educational Reforms at UT

Below are three different articles. The first is a basic summation of the recent privatization attempts and the cutbacks at the University of Toledo in the face of this devastating economic crisis. The second is a response by an Anna Martinez in the PR office of Higher Ed Holdings, a company I criticized in the original piece. The third is my response to her, and to progressives who happen to think Higher Ed Holdings conception of education may be a good thing for cost-cutting in the face of budget cuts, etc. The first two originally appeared on SocialistWorker.org, the third did not (edit: it eventually did) and I have yet to receive a response from Martinez.

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July 16, 2009

The Business of Education
Derek Ide

In the spirit of charter school “reform” sweeping across our educational establishment, the college of education at the University of Toledo has been appointed a new, charismatic reformer as dean who will lead the charge. Who is this brave soul planning to lead our college “on a path to world class”? None other than former UT Trustee Tom Brady.

His credentials for running the college of education are impeccable. As former founder and corporate head of Plastic Technologies Inc., Brady is an “entrepreneurial candidate with leadership qualities” who can “figure out how to do things in different ways while being more cost-effective,” in the words Provost Rosemary Haggett.

When former dean Thomas Switzer declared his retirement at the end of the Spring semester, UT President Lloyd Jacobs articulated to Haggett that someone from “outside the educational establishment” with a “business orientation” should run the college of education. One may question why our college of education should be run like a business, but perhaps since I am only a student, and not a member of the board of Trustees, who lavish praise upon Jacobs, I don’t find my interests aligned with theirs.

Jacobs, a medical doctor, who makes over $390,000 per year, with a $450,000 five-year bonus for not seeking a position elsewhere, has continually cited economic hardship as a means of cutting into programs at the university. In 2007 Jacobs faced tumultuous protest by concerned students and faculty when he expressed the desire to implement cuts into the liberal arts programs, decrease the availability of classes in areas like history, and replace full-time instructors with cheaper part-time instructors. Instead, resources were to be funneled almost exclusively into areas of STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine), while other areas are left to deteriorate or become what many students recognize as “diploma mills.”

The administration has been active in pushing for this type of in-and-out, make as much money as you can style of education. On February 26 of this year, Inside Higher Ed reported that “administrators are exploring a partnership with a private company known for churning out quick and inexpensive degrees.” This company was “Higher Ed Holdings, a Texas-based company that would help deliver online masters-level education courses to students in exchange for a share of tuition revenues.” Anyone who plans to be an educator undoubtedly knows that you cannot teach someone to teach simply through an online course; likewise, the dialogue, discussion, and personal contacts so vital to our education that one (potentially) gets in the classroom is not, and cannot, be replicated through such a course.

Luckily, student and faculty protest against such measures, along with quick organization both inside and outside the classroom, forced them to back down. The Toledo Blade reported on March 3 that, “It was still early in the conversations and the fact that the company had to back out at this stage "reflects poorly on our university" because they could not have a reasonable dialogue about the proposal, Ms. Haggett wrote in an e-mail Tuesday to the college of education staff.” This is something we should be proud of.

Thus, Jacobs appointment of “entrepreneurial” Brady, who is obviously outside of the “educational establishment,” comes as no surprise. Brady fits the mold of wealthy, reactionary “school reformer.” As an article in the Independent Collegian explained, “Brady has been a strong advocate for charter schools and other alternative forms of education. He helped to found the Toledo Technology Academy and has been involved with the Toledo School for the Arts.” Students should be trained, according to Brady, to produce more “high-value commerce” and still has hopes to outsource our education with revenue-generating companies like that of Higher Ed Holdings. We can also expect the very few educational courses which foster democratic dialogue and question the dominant discourse (such as those that explore the theoretical contributions of Paulo Freire, John Dewey, W.E.B. DuBois, and others) to be cut.

Supposedly, Brady was approved only after “all final applicants were considered and interviewed.” These “other applicants were from both within and outside of the college and constituted a diverse group along gender and racial lines, according to Jacobs.” It just so happened that Brady, wealthy, white, corporate businessman is the one chosen. Faculty, staff, and students did not support, and were not given a choice, in who was to lead the college. This sort of basic, democratic choice should be expected if universities and our educational apparatus, as educational theorist John Dewey posited, were meant to foster a democratic culture and active engagement on behalf of the educators and learners. Democratic participation by the students is absolutely essential in the learning process.

Instead, top-down decisions are run at our university like in any other private tyranny, with no serious input by those who actually do the work. The Board of Trustees have final say and, until we remedy this sort of institutional roadblock to democratic control, we can expect to have these problems repeated.

Brady is supposed to act as an “interim” dean until July 31, 2010 when a nationwide search can find a permanent replacement. The feeling, however, is that Brady is meant to stay; Governor Strickland refused to allow Brady a leave of absence from the Board of Trustees, so he resigned, signaling to most of us that he meant to securing his new $176,000 position as our new dictator (or, “financial manager” according to Haggett).

Unfortunately, despite some spirited but often small protests against such measures, a sustained campaign has not coalesced to fight back. If we are the University of Toledo seriously care about the quality of our education, it is time that we collectively organize to challenge this top-down, corporate model. We do not want a wealthy CEO governing our college with no accountability; we want democratic control over how it is managed, and the faculty and students deserve that, at the very least. The fight is ours to win; we, as both current and future educators, have to be willing to engage in it.

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July 23, 2009

Helping Universities Be Competitive

DEREK IDE'S letter mentions Higher Ed Holdings several times, and in so doing, may give readers an erroneous impression about Higher Ed Holdings' impact on curriculum ("The business of education").

Here are the facts. Higher Ed Holdings supports faculty at state universities to help them convert their courses for online instruction. The quality of the curriculum depends entirely upon the individual universities and their professors who develop and teach it. When students enroll in online classes, they are enrolling in the university and they earn their degrees from the university.

Higher Ed Holdings does not grant degrees. Higher Ed Holdings' stated mission is to help state universities become more competitive and reach high-need underserved populations. Higher Ed Holdings provides services to respected universities around the country.

I would like to direct you to another article that appeared in Inside Higher Ed more recently entitled "The Evidence of Online Education" which states that "online learning has definite advantages over face-to-face instruction when it comes to teaching and learning." The article is based on the findings of a new meta-analysis report released in June by the U.S. Department of Education.

Another good resource is a report entitled "The College of 2020: Students," which appeared in Chronicle Research Services, also in June of this year. That report states that "colleges that have resisted putting some of their courses online will almost certainly have to expand their online programs quickly."

In addition, we welcome you to visit our Higher Ed Holdings Web site, where professors and deans from state universities describe their work in developing and teaching their online programs. We appreciate your interest,
Anna Martinez, Higher Ed Holdings, Dallas, Texas

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August 6, 2009

A Response to Higher Ed Holdings
Derek Ide

Higher Ed Holding’s representative, Anna Martinez, was quick to respond to my original article condemning the privatization of higher education in the United States. While her rapid response may be a testament to the capability her company’s Public Relations department, her arguments concerning online education are largely vacuous when scrutinized beyond the rhetoric. Much like corporate-driven charter schools emphasis “choice” for underprivileged children, all while making inane profits, Higher Ed Holdings utilizes language of “competition” to reach “underserved populations.” This rhetoric falls far short of reality, however, despite the claim to statistical evidence.

Her immediate argument is that the university remains the controller of curriculum and her company simply transfers regular courses to the web. While I never said otherwise, it does very little to distract from the fact that both Higher Ed Holdings, along with the university administration, is converting to online courses not for the benefit of the student or the professor, but to extract larger sums of money from our pockets.

First, the entire situation must be put into context. In the face of $7.8 million in state cuts to higher education, the people who run the University of Toledo are trying desperately to find ways to cut costs. The immediate response was to notify students, on top of the 60% cut in their Ohio Choice Opportunity Grants awarded by the state, that they would be facing a tuition hike next year. At a time when working class families are suffering from wage cuts, loss of jobs, and home foreclosures, this is only one more added worry to those who were subsidized for the prodigious costs of post-secondary education.

The University of Toledo is largely a working class school and, these price increases and funding cuts will inevitably limit those who wish to pursue an education but cannot afford it or significantly increase the debt students go into to pay for education.

Online education, however, does absolutely nothing to lessen the problems working class students face. Students enrolled in online courses, despite decreasing the costs for the schools through various cost reductions (no physical space needed, no instructor present, less infrastructure for parking or public transit, etc.), online courses are just as expensive per credit hour as regular courses. To top it off, UT charges a “distance-learning fee” for the travails the administration suffers under such cost-cutting measures.

While this does not implicate Higher Ed Holdings directly, and I do not lay claim to the idea that they are the root cause of UT’s problems, instead of the cost-cutting benefits going to the students by decreasing tuition costs the money is funneled into the hands of those who own Higher Ed. This represents a furthering of the privatization that inevitably removes democratic control from educators and students. The company and its message play a vital role in maintaining and perpetuating this new discourse which allows for the privatization of our education.

Thus, the second problem with Martinez’s response is the whole ideological component that is necessarily attached. Higher Ed Holdings claims to “gives state universities a competitive advantage over their rivals.” The presupposition that competition is a positive thing and the business-model for education supports quality learning only supports the dominant ideological discourse surrounding the privatization and, in turn, profit-making schemes that have hijacked our educational system.

This emphasis on competition inevitably forces the university to pursue any cost-cutting measures available to them by a variety of means. Online education is simply one tool to pursue this, and Higher Ed Holdings simply the means through which this tool is put into action.

Third, Higher Ed Holdings itself is not known for their legitimacy. The owner, Randy Best, is a right-winger who vigorously supported and fundraided George W. Bush’s campaign in 2000. He actively supported No Child Left Behind, which has been disastrous for educators and students across the nation. On top of this, ABC news reported he made “millions of dollars in profits from a federal reading program that critics say favored administration cronies at the expense of schoolchildren.” In return for his service to the Bush campaign, he received lucrative contracts from NCLB. Best eventually turned around and sold Voyager Expanded Learning, associated with the $6 billion Reading First initiative, for $360 million.

Conversations with Higher Ed Holdings and UT began due to “Scott Scarborough, the university’s chief financial officer, has a history with the company, and once sat on its board.” Mr. Scarborough, of course, was never elected to his position by faculty nor does he represent their interests. He eventually left DePaul University due to the fact that he, according to president of the 2006-7 Faculty Council, had a “tendency to allow financial concerns to override academic priorities.”

He exemplified this concern in a recent statement about the budget cuts, “There will be conversations with the provosts, deans and vice presidents trying to identify non-revenue producing programs…you have to start there to ask the question, ‘Is it essential; is it strategic, is it mission-critical?” It seems that for Mr. Scarborough mission-critical means, first and foremost, ‘does it make money?’

Even more preposterous is, as the Independent Collegian reported, he plans to make working people pay for the cuts:

“Aside from looking at programs, administrators will be approaching the various unions which received contractually negotiated salary raises and ask them to consider forfeiting them, Scarborough said. According to estimates from last semester, this would free up approximately $6 million annually. Administrators may also consider stopping the previously approved salary raises for those non-union personnel making under $40,000. Personnel making more than that didn’t receive a raise.”

Scarborough, President Jacobs, and the rest of the administration do not seem willing to fork over their bloated salaries, why should regular working people? Why would they be willing to hand out money to private companies like Higher Ed while they attempt to cut workers’ pay?

Thus, we should not be surprised to find two profit-driven, corporate pals trying to push their agenda on our school.

Fourth, my argument was not that online education is completely invaluable, or that we should dogmatically dismiss it as a medium of education. That is not the case at all. In fact, I believe online education can be, and should be, implemented and immersed in every learning environment, as web-based skills are absolutely essential in our day.

My criticism was that UT, with the help of Higher Ed Holdings, would transform the Master’s degree program from one based in the classroom, with all the dialogue, discussion, and potential for hands on activity which it entails, to one completely online. Along with this inevitably come the various problems associated with it, such as a separation from educator and students, rout learning with little critical analysis, very few possibilities for engaging dialogue and debate, etc. More importantly, the intent was not to create a symbiotic learning environment which utilizes face-to-face education and online education, as the very study Martinez points us to confirms as “best of all,” but to create one where UT could create a degree factory which pumped out titles with as little cost as possible.

In other words, students would be receiving less for their money. They would be paying the same amount, more with the additional distance-learning fee, and receive no face-to-face instruction, no chance for dialogue, debate, or discussion, and even less room for democratic participation in the classroom.

Even the study which she claims to promote her argument notes that online education is not a better medium for learning, but students generally spend more time with online courses then they do in the classroom.

Fifth, educators within the department would be forced to convert to an online program, whether or not they preferred the medium. Personally, I have spoken with a number of educators who were quite weary of teaching their classes purely online. The advent of this forced conversion would, it seems, render the alienation of the educator from their work even greater. There is a reason that Higher Ed Holdings backed out of the deal; popular pressure from professors and students forced them too.

The original report explained some of the motivation behind this opposition:

“Under the roughly outlined agreement, Toledo faculty would continue to teach online courses through video lectures, but students would be assisted by “coaches” employed by Higher Ed Holdings. Toledo faculty say they’re unsure what the credentials of the “coaches” would be, and that’s a source of discomfort.”

An unidentified professor explained further:

“If I’m a talking head on video, I would have very limited contact with my students,” the faculty member said. “The only people who would have contact would be ‘coaches,’ who have a masters degree – or not; who would understand – or would not understand – [course] content or the province that I have in my classes. It’s probably the worst case scenario, as far as I’m concerned.”

Due to space, I will save extensive critiques of the sources of these studies and their supporters. Arne Duncan, the Department of Education, private companies like Higher Ed who hope to make a profit, they all have a vested interest in completely digitalizing education. It cuts costs. For the state, this means less expenditure on superfluous populations. For private companies, this means more profit is directed to their pockets.

I also have not seriously reflected here upon the implications that online education entails in reality for students. The facilitation of standardized test-style education, a format which dilutes the learning process and stunts the development of critical thinking skills, would be greatly increased with online education. Anyone who has taken an online course knows how they are full of multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank education, quite the opposite of the dynamic and engaging learning atmosphere actually required to stimulate students.

To close, my argument is not that online education should be outright opposed, but that private companies hoping to make a quick buck off transferring our courses online in order to cut costs should be. Online education, in the right hands, may prove liberating and helpful, but it can also be used to perpetuate the “banking-style” education dominant in the field at the moment. We, as socialist and progressive educators, must combat this. We must also struggle against the continued privatization of our schools. Charter schools and private companies like Higher Ed are waging a war of ideas, dressing their profit-generating schemes with progressive phrases. It is our job to take them up and unveil the reality behind their ostensible rhetoric.


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This blog is a personal blog written and edited by me. For questions about this blog, please contact Derek Ide (ruminyauee@hotmail.com). Anything on this blog may be used, circulated, disseminated, by readers in any setting except where profit it to be made from it. Feel free to use the work presented here in educational settings, activist work, etc. All I ask is that the blog be cited. I write for my own purposes. This writings presented here will be influenced by my background, occupation, and political affiliation or other experiences.

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